In the lush rainforests of Arunachal Pradesh, India, where majestic tigers, clouded leopards, eagles, and hornbills roam, lies a treasure trove of cultural heritage held dear by the Nyishi community, the largest Indigenous tribe in the state.
Among their traditions is the donning of a byopa, an intricate handwoven cane cap adorned with the upper beak and casque of a great hornbill and an eagle’s claw at the back.
Paired with a machete featuring the jaw of a clouded leopard or a tiger, this traditional headgear symbolizes inhabiting the spirits of powerful creatures, bestowing protection upon the people, and asserting status.
“The tiger rules the jungle. The eagle rules the sky. Wearing their parts implies inhabiting their mighty spirit, protecting the people.
It’s a status symbol,” Nabam Bapu, an entrepreneur from the Nyishi tribe told The Guardian.
However, as wildlife numbers decline in the region, hunting rare animals and using their body parts for such rituals have raised concerns among community members.
Addressing this issue head-on, Bapu partnered with his friend Anang Tadar, a tech innovator, to introduce a sustainable alternative to the traditional headgear.
Their innovative approach involves harnessing the power of 3D printing to replicate animal parts, enabling the Nyishi community to preserve their traditions without harming wildlife.
This endeavor marks the inception of Arunachal Ivory and Ornaments, a startup committed to protecting cultural practices while safeguarding animals from being hunted for their pelts and parts, 3DPrintr reports.
A Leap Towards Conservation: 3D Printing for Cultural Preservation
The concept behind Arunachal Ivory and Ornaments is part of a global movement that seeks to balance the preservation of age-old customs with environmental protection. In southern Africa, Panthera, a wildcat conservation charity, initiated the Furs for Life program, creating synthetic leopard fur to replace real leopard skins used for capes by followers of Shembe, one of the largest Indigenous churches in South Africa. This initiative has resulted in a significant reduction in the use of real leopard skins, contributing to wildlife conservation efforts in the region.
Similarly, Bapu and Tadar’s project empowers the Nyishi community to continue their customs without compromising the delicate ecological balance. However, creating these replicas was no easy task.
“It took us two years to source raw materials for the product, from an array of synthetic resin to plastic materials, wood and fire-resistant glass,” Tadar told The Guardian. “We are exploring the use of plant-based and eco-friendly resin as well.”
Navigating Tradition with Technology: Involving Community Elders
Once a month, Bapu and Tadar embark on a trek through the picturesque landscapes of Arunachal Pradesh, traversing miles of dirt roads to present their latest samples to the village elders for consultation and approval. The elders, who possess a wealth of knowledge gathered over generations, ensure that the replicas faithfully mirror the real animal parts, maintaining the essence of cultural significance in the headgear.
Currently, Arunachal Ivory and Ornaments has successfully produced over 100 replicas, including the milk-white teeth of the clouded leopard and the tiger, the off-white teeth of wild boars, and the neon-yellow talons of eagles. Their latest endeavor involves developing 3D printouts of a great Indian hornbill’s beak.
A Region’s Cultural Heritage at Stake: Challenges in Conservation
The state of Arunachal Pradesh boasts a rich tapestry of cultural diversity, with 26 major tribes, including Nyishi, Adi, Galo, Apatani, and Tagin. Fearing the decline of these cultural practices, the state government encourages students to wear traditional dress every Friday and government workers to follow suit once a month, reports India Today NE. As a result, the demand for wild animal parts remains high. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford these parts, leading to an illegal black market trading in animal products. Tiger teeth, for instance, are highly valued, with prices soaring to hundreds of thousands of rupees.
The Road to Conservation Victory: 3D Printing and Collaborative Efforts
While authorities combat poaching and illegal wildlife trade along the state’s international borders with Myanmar and China, monitoring such activities proves challenging. It is here that Arunachal Ivory and Ornaments sees an opportunity to contribute to the fight against this illegal trade. Successful implementation of these 3D-printed replicas depends on their adoption by local communities. The entrepreneurs must garner support from influential local institutions to drive change and curb hunting practices.
Bapu told The Guardian that he firmly believes in the potential of technology for a higher purpose – to save wildlife and revive cultural practices. In a world where wildlife faces threats from modern weaponry, harnessing technology to protect animals and their habitats represents a beacon of hope for the preservation of cultural heritage and ecological balance.
With Arunachal Ivory and Ornaments leading the way, we embark on a journey of conservation where tradition and innovation unite, empowering communities to celebrate their heritage while safeguarding the planet’s irreplaceable wildlife.
This article by Matthew Russell was first published by The Animal Rescue Site. Lead Image: PEXELS.
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